When visiting a shiva house, is it appropriate to repeat
divrei Torah that seek to explain tragedy or death?
In general, trying to “explain” tragedy or death – especially to someone sitting shiva – is not appropriate, both from a Torah and a common sense perspective.
When faced with the tragic loss of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, we are told that “va’yidom Aharon” – that Aaron was silent (Vayikra 10:3). When Moshe (and the angels) cried out in protest as the asarah harugei malchus were savagely murdered by the Roman emperor, protesting, “Zu Torah v’zu s’chara – This is Torah and this is its reward?!” Hashem replied: “Shetok! – Be silent!” (Menachos 29b).
The Midrash tells us that when confronted with the impurity of death, Moshe’s face became white, utterly shocked – “With what will he [the defiled one] be purified?!” (Bamidbar Rabba 19:4).
Humble silence is the only true response to death and tragedy. The most brilliant mind cannot speak to a bleeding heart. Nichum aveilim consists of showing empathy, compassion, and kindness to the avel, not pontificating and trying to explain (and certainly not justify) the loss.
As one chassidic Rebbe once told his chassid who had experienced an unspeakable calamity: “I have no answers for you. But I can cry with you…”
After time has passed, and a mourner has reached a point at which the shock of the loss is not that intense, there may be room to discuss the issue of loss and death on a more theological level – but even then, only with the qualification that we don’t know G-d’s mysterious ways and the limited human mind cannot fathom G-d’s thoughts and plans.
Mesaymim b’tov: May we only experience revealed simchos.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson,
renowned Lubavitch author and lecturer
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The rabbis maintain that, when visiting a home in which shiva is being observed, we should allow the mourners to speak first rather than rush in with our words. For good reason. I and my rabbinic colleagues often hear of hurtful things said to mourners, with the best of intentions, by well-meaning visitors.
This is not the time, I believe, for divrei Torah concerning tragedy, death, and dying. Too often, such offerings will be found patronizing and insensitive. This is instead the time for the comfort offered by our silent presence; the small gesture of support; the expression of sorrow upon loss.
“I’m so sorry,” “There are no words,” We are with you and we care.” These and similar expressions can mean the world.
Many years ago, upon hearing of the untimely death of a grandson of HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, I decided to be enachem avel. I entered a room to find the child’s father sitting on the floor surrounded by roughly 50 men. No one said a word. The mourner clearly did not feel like speaking and no visitor spoke first.
After 45 minutes of silence, I rose, recited “HaMakom,” and left. I have never experienced a more moving shiva…
The eloquent message communicated to the mourning father could not have been clearer: “We are with you, as best we can be, in your sorrow. There is need to speak if you do not wish to speak. We will sit silently with you and allow our presence to speak for itself.”
– Rabbi Goldin, author of “Unlocking the
Torah Text” series and past president of the RCA
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It’s a wonderful idea to discuss divrei Torah in a beis medrash. However, it’s a very poor idea to do so in a shiva house.
The goal and function of being menachem avel is to offer consolation to the mourner. The primary objective is to say as little as possible and to allow the mourner to speak about the dead person. That’s typically a source of tremendous consolation and it’s also kavod hames – a show of great respect for the person who passed away.
The more a person offers his own thoughts at a shiva house, the worse a job he typically does in terms of the actual mitzvah – especially when he gets involved in philosophy and theories about why Hashem does these things. The more he does that, the more trouble he gets into and the more pain he causes the aveilim.
The rule of thumb is: Say as little as possible, try to get the avel to speak, and remember that your job is there to feel the avel’s pain as much as you can.
— Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier, founder of The Shmuz
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Nichum Aveilim is a time for empathy, not philosophy. I have repeatedly observed laymen assuming that the purpose of “comforting the mourners” is to make them feel better about their loss or momentarily forget it. That is wrong and incredibly misplaced.
Chazal underscored that the act of comforting is introduced by the bereaved and not by the visitor. No one should talk until the mourner begins (Yoreh De’ah 376:1). The mourner knows what is on his or her heart. Sometimes silence is appropriate throughout, as there is nothing to say; it is enough that the mourner senses the presence and concern of the comforter.
Even when the mourner cries out “Why?!” the shiva house is not the appropriate venue for philosophizing. The emotions are too raw and the reality is still too visceral.
After shiva, when there is time to reflect on the death a little more dispassionately, if only because some time has passed, putting loss in a philosophical perspective is appropriate if the mourner seeks it or shows readiness to listen.
“Whatever G-d does is for the good” (Berachot 60b) is a truism, but the shiva house is not the place to share it. These were the lessons in propriety violated by the friends of Iyov.
That being said, if the mourner is so inclined, it is not inappropriate to share stories of individuals who experienced losses similar to that of the mourner and of the divrei Torah that comforted them or gave them a more nuanced perspective on their plight.
But this has to be done on a case-by-case basis and only if the mourner is receptive, and it’s best if there is no one else present but the mourner and the comforter to allow for a meaningful dialogue.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the Israel regional
vice president for the Coalition for Jewish Values